London Film Festival 21: the year I almost met Jane Campion.
I haven’t felt this excited about going to London since I was 10 and my Mam took me to BHS on Oxford Street to buy bridesmaid shoes (they were pale blue and I have never loved a pair of shoes more). This LFF has felt a long time coming and although the festival last year did happen online, nothing quite feels like queuing up at 7am in a scratty alley behind Leicester Square to get into a busy Industry screening of Paul Verhoeven’s latest film – but more of that later.
I can never decide which bit of the festival to go for, given that we can’t afford to go for the whole thing. Go at the start, you miss the gems they keep until the closing galas. If you go at the end, you miss the buzz of the start. I went in the middle, hoping to catch a bit of everything and I was not disappointed. The only rule of any film festival is to squeeze in as many films as possible, even if your mind starts to melt and your contact lenses fuse to your eyeballs. I averaged four films per day with a five-film marathon on day 3 but that was really pushing the limits given that the last film I saw that day was the masterful (but very, very slow) Natural Light, from Denes Nagy. What an incredible film but definitely a tough sell.
My festival started with a breakfast meeting with the Reclaim the Frame gang and it felt lovely to get to meet new faces and old in real life after so long on Zoom. It set the tone perfectly. My absolute highlight of the week was seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter. I felt like I held my breath for the entire film, there wasn’t a wasted second on screen and can’t wait to share it with a Plymouth Arts Cinema audience. Hit the Road, by Panah Panahi, came a very close second and had the most incredible performance by a child actor I have seen in a long time. Another belter was Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Earwig which lived up to all of my high expectations. I think she is one of the most interesting directors working at the moment, really pushing the boundaries and creating entirely ‘other’ worlds that need to be seen on the big screen. Mesmerising stuff.
The film I was most looking forward to was the gala screening of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (screening at PAC from 3rd – 9th December), made all the more exciting by the fact the JC herself was there to introduce it. She has been my absolute hero since I first saw Sweetie and I wrote my MA thesis on The Piano, which is still one of my favourite films. Not only was I there in a cinema with her but I had a ticket to the after party (well, the friend who I went with had the tickets). Absolute golden opportunity to meet her. As the film finished, my friend turned to me and said, ‘Do you mind if we don’t go to the party, it’ll feel too much like still being at work’. I think I was pretty cool about it and what would I have said to JC anyway, even if I had managed to get close enough? ‘Great film Love, keep it up’, while smiling giddily and giving her the thumbs-up? Nope, not cool. So, I graciously (!) agreed and we went for an un-starry but much more fun drink and catch-up instead.
Part of the joy of LFF is that kind of catching up. The random conversations that start in early morning queues where you find out about the gems you may have missed, or you talk about why a particular film worked or didn’t quite hit the mark. You meet filmmakers, other programmers, reviewers, the people who just love cinema and after such a long break, it was those conversations that remind everyone of why we queue at 7am and why we all do what we do. There is something uniquely energising about the cinema overload that festivals deliver.
I saw too many films to mention them all; some good, some mediocre and one absolute howler. Exactly what a festival mix should be – there has to be some texture. There are films I know will play beautifully to our audience; The Phantom of the Open (predictable but incredibly sweet, Belfast (Judy Dench in black and white, say no more), Mothering Sunday, and some which will be a harder sell but absolutely necessary (Earwig and Natural Light already mentioned). There were some which were enjoyable even if I don’t think my audience would want to watch; Dashcam and La Abuela. I also saw a great installation as part of the Expanded programme strand by Darkfield, staged in a shipping container on the Southbank. It was clever, refreshing and unsettling. And the howler I mentioned? Benedetta by Paul Verhoeven, unsurprisingly, hilariously, riotously awful (only my opinion so don’t sue me) but it was the best way to end the festival, sitting with colleagues, tears of inappropriate laughter streaming down our faces in a perfect shared cinema moment. And really, that is the joy. There isn’t anything quite like watching a film as part of an audience – it can transform a terrible film into the best experience, it can create moments of pure beauty and deep resonance and it reminds us all of how much we need other people to connect to.
Was it exhausting? Of course. Was it worth it? Of course. Am I still sad at missing Jane Campion? I think it’s probably better never to meet your heroes, that way you can never be disappointed (or make an absolute arse of yourself).